Showing posts from May, 2008

Fabulous Monastery: Prologue

Once upon a time the people of a community decided to establish a monastery in order to give glory to God, provide edification for the populace, and give young men with no regular occupation a place to hang out. As it turned out, the community did well, and the monastery was run by clever people, and the young men who had hung out there grew old and some of them left part of their money to the monastery.

Ever since the invention of wealth, men have striven to accumulate it, and some have accumulated rather substantial piles thereof. These accumulations tend to be curtailed by the great ineluctables of death and taxes. Not so for the monastery. The community had arranged for it not to pay taxes and it did not die, but its friends did, often leaving it their spare cash in so doing. When an early donor left it half his cash and his library, they renamed the monastery "The Monastery" in his honor.

Centuries passed. Wise management, death, and no taxes inflated its wealth, un…

Scott McClellan

McClellan's revelation's ( of Bush's lies and deceptions to get us into to Iraq are not news to those of us in the reality based community. They probably won't have much effect on the Kool Aid drinkers either. What they do offer, besides vindication, is some forensic evidence on the mind of Bush. The impetuosity, arrogance, stubbornness and incuriosity aren't news either of course, but one bit that caught my eye was that about Bush's talent for self-deception, imagining or pretending, for example, that he couldn't remember if he had used cocaine.

Time Enough

Sean Carroll has a new post at and a new article in Scientific American about the direction of time. I had a couple of questions, but comments don't seem to be working (or visible) so I will just ask and see if anybody has any ideas.(1)Sean makes much of the fact that a random initial state is very different from the extremely low entropy state from which our Universe apparently started. Doesn't Loschmidt's paradox force us to thing the same thing about any preceeding state? If the state of (say) one million years ago is randomly chosen from those that could give rise to the present, isn't it overwhemingly more likely that it was of much higher entropy than the present state? Exactly as much more likely, in fact, as that the state one million years in the future will have higher entropy than the present. (See e.g.,'s_paradox).(2) Sean points out that the number of microstates doesn't change…

Feynman at TMC

Via Dr. M., Danny Hillis has a remembrance of Richard Feynman and his time at Thinking Machines corporation. It's chock full of genuine Feynmania:
Richard arrived in Boston the day after the company was incorporated. We had been busy raising the money, finding a place to rent, issuing stock, etc. We set up in an old mansion just outside of the city, and when Richard showed up we were still recovering from the shock of having the first few million dollars in the bank. No one had thought about anything technical for several months. We were arguing about what the name of the company should be when Richard walked in, saluted, and said, "Richard Feynman reporting for duty. OK, boss, what's my assignment?" The assembled group of not-quite-graduated MIT students was astounded.

After a hurried private discussion ("I don't know, you hired him..."), we informed Richard that his assignment would be to advise on the application of parallel processing to scientific pr…


Yet more evidence that Hillary has used the Imperius curse on Paul Krugman

One Thousand and Two

. . . gums to chew, before they dump you in the stew.

I am a bit of a bibliophile, or perhaps bibliomaniac, but when I contemplate the approaching footsteps of mortal doom I can't say that I worry about which of the top 1001 novels I haven't read. So I probably am not in the target audience for 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Come to think of it, though, is anyone?

Hungry authors must eat, of course, and if inspiration fails, maybe putting together a long list of books obscure and un is one way to fill the pages. I suppose that I have read a couple of thousand novels in my lifetime, though my input has declined dramatically in the last forty years. I'm just not that big a reader of novels.

I certainly don't dislike novels, in and of themselves. War and Peace, Anna Karenina and a few others are permanent pieces of my mental furniture. A good novel, like any good relationship, is a substantial psychic investment, and it's costly when it goes wrong. You can wind…

Can Somebody Get Him A Cellphone?

I'm talking about Ted Hagee's God, of course. Ted, you might recall, is the Texas preacher whose endorsement John McCain gratefully accepted a few months back, though the McBushster is having some second thoughts lately.

The problem is that old sermons of Haagee keep surfacing. Hagee's God, like the God of big time preachers Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, is a potent but inarticulate guy with a penchant for expressing his opinions via weather, earthquake, and international terrorism. Aside from hating Catholics, Ted's God also really hates Gay parades, so, hearing that one was planned for New Orleans, he sent a hurricane to devastate the much of Louisiana and Mississipi.

Hagee's God also wanted to tell the Jews to move to Israel, so he sent them (and the rest of the world) Hitler. So, Big Guy, what happened to those old time Biblical plagues of, say, frogs or maybe even grasshoppers? Too boring? Or have you lost your touch with these?

I seem to recall…

Deficits Don't Matter

Reagan proved that "deficits don't matter" said Cheney to Bush. Prior to Reagan, the Republican party had had a strong anti-deficit bias, but Reagan's lesson of borrow and spend, borrow and spend, was eagerly embraced by banks, credit card companies, and the public. Democrats were mostly OK with it since it allowed some social programs to continue. Republicans were OK with it since the benefits went overwhelmingly to the rich.

Eventually, though, the tab for all those free lunches comes due. I think I see the waiter coming now, and he doesn't look like he's in a generous mood.

Chronicle of Doom Fortold X

They say that you should be nice to the people you meet on the way up, since you may meet them again on your way back down. I don't know that that works for countries, but in any case America managed to pick the ultimate unpopular asshole as leader just in time for him to annoy and enrage practically everybody while launching us on our downward trajectory.
Tom Friedman actually has a NYT column worth reading this week.
There has been much debate in this campaign about which of our enemies the next U.S. president should deign to talk to. The real story, the next president may discover, though, is how few countries are waiting around for us to call. It is hard to remember a time when more shifts in the global balance of power are happening at once — with so few in America’s favor.

Let’s start with the most profound one: More and more, I am convinced that the big foreign policy failure that will be pinned on this administration is not the failure to make Iraq work, as devastating as t…

Feeling Peak-ed (III)

Is peak oil really here this time? Not very likely, perhaps, and probably only ARAMCO, if anybody, really knows, but it sure looks like the age of big production growth may have ended. Does this mean that the long cycle of boom and bust in the oil industry is over? Probably not, but it's hard to believe that we will see much cheap oil anytime soon.

Anne-Louise Hittle, of Wood Mackenzie, added that investors were shifting their focus from the short-term to the medium-term, where supply fears played a bigger role. Since January, long-term futures oil contracts, such as those for delivery in 2016, have jumped almost 60 per cent, while near-term prices have gone up 35 per cent.

That trend was exacerbated by T. Boone Pickens, the influential investor who believes world oil production is about to peak as aging fields run dry. He warned that oil prices would hit $150 a barrel by the end of the year.

“Eighty-five million barrels of oil a day is all the world can produce, and the demand is…

Last Week's Procrastination Post

Slate devoted a whole issue to procrastination. Everybody inveighs against it, and Emily Yoffe hauled out some non procrastinating expert to claim that it's just a bad habit with no basis in biology. I will believe that when I believe the same thing about sleep and eating.

Procrastination is the brain's way of protesting against spending too much time doing stupid and boring things like processing paperwork, writing reports, and mowing the lawn. None of those things was useful to our survival when our brains evolved, and the fact that they might be now has not yet been incorporated into the plan.

Pretty Boy

Verena von Pfetten claims women like, or even prefer, ugly men.

Well that explains why I could never get a date in high school.

And why George Clooney has always had the same problem.

Good as Gold

James Hamilton on why the gold standard is a dumb idea:
A savvy speculator would then reason as follows.

The U.S. has promised that it will continue to convert dollars to gold at $600 per ounce. But that will require them to raise interest rates at a time of potential financial panic, and I don't believe they have the stomach for that. I'm going to ask for my dollars in gold right now, in the guess that they'll abandon this policy shortly. When they give up the standard, my gold will have appreciated, and I'll have a handsome profit.
And how could the U.S. respond to such a speculative attack? We'd have two choices. One would be to say to the speculators, you're right, this idea of driving interest rates up at a time of financial crisis was a dumb one. Dollars are no longer convertible to gold at the old fixed rate.

Or the other option would be to say, no, we really mean it this time, honest, we're serious about this whole gold standard thing. So, we drive int…

Doesn't Play Well With Others

is one of those notices you hate to have sent home with your kindergartener. It's an implicit threat that your child might be destined to be unpopular, an outcast, a criminal, or perhaps even a Republican. Most kids do learn at least a bit about getting along eventually, though, and few become serial killers.

The religions born of Abraham have a bit of nasty history in that regard, perhaps not so surprisingly given their origin in the worship of a tribal war god. Like many such, he was infernally jealous and intolerant of any competition, frequently commanding the extermination of whole peoples some of whom might have strayed in their devotion or not had the right accent. Check out Exodus for examples.

As his cult fragmented, as popular cults do, the various branches fell to extermination of each other, with occasional bouts of limited toleration. The rise of liberal democracy made necessary a more tolerant practice, and eventually a substantial portion of Christianity signed on…

Mitigation: WGIII SPM

I have been surfing through the IPCC WGIII (Mitigation) summary for policy makers, and I'm not impressed. In my opinion, it's a terrible piece of technical writing, unlikely to be of much use to anyone, least of all policy makers.

Why am I so critical, when it has lots of colorful graphs, boxes and tables, and clearly represents a lot of hard work? In the first place, I can't imagine an audience. I certainly can't imagine a senior government official, congressman, or even congressional staffer reading through these 24 pages, or learning much if they did.
The central organizing principle is a set of alternate "scenarios," but you won't find much discussion of them here - for that you need to go "somewhere else." In fact that's true of almost everything in the summary. Curious as to what a US$/tCO2-eq is? Better look "somewhere else."

I have never met a policymaker who was willing to wade through this kind of technical gobbledegook. …

Too Old to be President?

Yes, I am ageist about the Presidency. John McCain is too old to be President. Let's remember that Reagan, who was a couple of years younger than McCain when he became President, spent his second term drifting into the fog of Alzheimer's disease while George Bush the first and other henchmen immersed the country in the criminal follies of Iran-Contra.

I'm an old guy myself, rapidly approaching Medicare eligibility, and I watched myself and my contemporaries get old. Most of us still have most of our mental faculties about us (somewhere about us - now where did I put those damn things?) but we are all slowed mentally and physically. McCain seems to be a tough guy, from long lived and vigorous stock, but he was never very bright to begin with, he has had cancer, and his body was broken in Vietnam.

McCain deserves our respect and honor for what he went through, but the Presidency is not a reward for good service. Age is not the primary reason I am against him, but it is a …

Damn The New York Times

It's official. Ann Coulter and I agree on the New York Times.

What possessed the New York Times to give neocon godfather Edward Luttwak a platform on its editorial page to tell wacko Muslims to assassinate Barack Obama? Luttwak (who is not Muslim but Jewish) used the platform to propound the notion that Obama counts as a Muslim apostate whose murder is thereby sanctioned by God and religion. Many Muslims have pointed out that Luttwak's inference of apostasy is bizarre and unlikely to be sanctioned even by extremists, though no doubt there are nuts out there extreme enough to be induced to try.

I understand why slimy neocon like Luttwak might try a smear like this - when you have no morals and are about to lose power, anything goes. What in the hell inspired Sulzberger incorporated to print this garbage, though? Has the nutbag wing of the Israel lobby decided that they stand or fall with the neocons?

The NYT has forfeited all journalistic credibility and the respect of every …

Road Kill

Brad DeLong leads us to Fake Steve Jobs, who diagnoses Dell.
I love Charles Cooper of CNET and I respect the fact that he's got to print so many column inches per week in order to earn his paycheck but I have to take issue with his latest effort (see here) where he tries to argue that while Dell looks like crap today, in fact Dell could bounce back just the way Apple did. Coop is light on details and specifics and just sticks to the argument that "times change" and that "Dell has bounced back from previous stumbles so who knows?"
. . .
What people overlook is that the advantages that allowed Dell to prosper for about a decade were all fleeting advantages. Dell was for a while an innovative company, but its innovations did not involve product design. They involved manufacturing and distribution efficiencies.
. . .
The other reason Dell won't rebound is that the company is yoked to Microsoft. Vista has hurt them tremendously. Don't doubt it. All of the PC make…

Fair Farvard

At the end of the Middle Ages, the vast wealth of the Catholic Church proved a severe temptation to monarchs. Somewhat similarly, the Massachusetts legislature has been casting covetous eyes at the enormous wealth of its education industry, and has mused about taxing it.

Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw (we won't mention Greg's less than excellent adventure in the Bush White House) thinks that might be a signal that it's time to move along. Space is short in Cambridge, and the place is big enough to be unwieldy anyway.
1. Instead of expanding the university into Alston, Harvard could create a second campus in another state. Call it Harvard South. (Put it in a better climate than Boston, and I would be one of the first faculty to volunteer for the move.)

2. Transfer much of the endowment to Harvard South. Support Harvard North by slowly selling off land in Massachusetts.

3. Eventually, make Harvard South the main campus, and Harvard North the satellite. If Massachusett…

Sullivan Watches Clinton's "Victory" Speech

I don't think he was impressed:
. . . She cannot concede; she cannot give an inch; she cannot acknowledge reality. Observing sociopaths in close detail as their world collapses around them and they cannot absorb the truth is always fascinating. And yet some sliver of humanity is discernible: her tone is altered. Even she cannot fake enthusiasm or confidence any more. And Bill seems grim. Chelsea seemed close to breaking into tears.

If you want another president whose own grip on reality has little relationship to the outside world, then you know who to vote for.
Harsh? Maybe, but considering the crap she has been spewing lately, hardly unjust.

For a truly repellent performance, though, you really should have caught Lanny Davis on CNN. He was a tired old whore, knowing exactly what he was doing, fully appreciating how disgusting, dishonest and contemptible he was, but obliged to go through the motions one more time anyway.

Too Smart for Your Own Good?

Any body ever accuse you of being too smart for your own good?

Me neither, but it seems that you can be, at least if you are a fruit fly.

In a series of experiments, scientists selected fruit flies for their ability to learn to recognize an undesireable food source by repeatedly breeding the best learners. The fruit flies became good at this kind of learning after a few generations.
It takes just 15 generations under these conditions for the flies to become genetically programmed to learn better. At the beginning of the experiment, the flies take many hours to learn the difference between the normal and quinine-spiked jellies. The fast-learning strain of flies needs less than an hour.
It seems that their learning extracted a cost, though:
But the flies pay a price for fast learning. Dr. Kawecki and his colleagues pitted smart fly larvae against a different strain of flies, mixing the insects and giving them a meager supply of yeast to see who would survive. The scientists then ran the…

Falsifying AGW Theory

James Annan and Roger Pielke [James neglects to provide a link or even identify which RP is in question] are duking it out on the subject of falsifying the Anthropogenic Global Warming theory. If we are good Popperians, we should believe that a good scientific theory ought to be falsifiable - subject to disproof through predictions that fail to occur. General relativity, for example, would have been falsified if Einstein's predictions for the precession of Mercury's orbit and the the deflection of starlight during eclipses had proven wrong. Darwin's theory of natural selection would similarly have been damaged if the mechanisms of heredity had turned out to be different for each diffent type of animal.

So what are the critical observations for AGW, asks Roger? At the risk of oversimplifying Annan's answer, he says: AGW is a statistical theory about multidecadal warming - wait a few decades and see. Eli R points out some ancillary effects that are suitable tests.

I d…

The Silver Whale

Some time ago, never mind how long precisely (funny how this Moby Dick reference gets more useful as my memory for details fades), my wife gave me a large box, and told me to get my junk out of her drawers.

Maybe I should rephrase that. The box allegedly contained a rolling toolchest, and she asked me to get my tools out of the drawers she wanted to use for her junk.

The box weighed approximately 400 lbs and was constructed to withstand a simultaneous earthquake and H 5 tornado, so just getting it open was a bit of a challenge. When opened, what was revealed was parts, 11,347 of them by rough count or actual estimate, of which only 11,017 were screws, in 33 varieties. What I had, in short, was not a toolchest, but a project.

Now my wife claims that she was unaware that the chest came disassembled. Lending plausibility to that notion is the fact that she clearly remembers a much younger, stronger, keener-eyed, and clearer-sighted me struggling into the wee hours of Christmas morning t…


I was driving home from the neighborhood WalMart, and turned on NPR to listen to Maria Hinojosa on Latino USA. The program, or at any rate the part I listened to, featured a number of Hispanics defending MEChA, and citing its good effects on their lives. It seems the organization feels under attack from the latest maneuverings of the Arizona legislature.

I'm no friend to the kind of anti-immigrant bullshit that Republicans are now embracing, so I thought I ought to check out MEChA. The Acronymn stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or Student Movement of Aztlan. Aztlan is usually conceived of as Mexico plus those parts of the US that we stole from Mexico.

The national web site, linked above, certainly seems inoffensive enough, and the Constitution is bureaucratic enough to put the doughtiest proofreader to sleep. If you make it down far enough, though, you come to section twenty-four:
Section 24.

In order to be a MEChA chapter recognized by the Regional, it shall …

Omen for Hillary?

A filly ran in the Kentucky Derby for the first time in a while this year, and Hillary advised voters to bet on the filly.

The Derby results might thereby be considered an unpromising omen.

After the race, the filly Eight Belles collapsed after pulling up. According to Dr. Larry Bramlage, among the on-call veterinarians Saturday at Churchill Downs, she broke both of her front ankles and was euthanized on the track.
I'm not one to stretch an analogy, but the winner was Big Brown.

The Moving Finger

There is no future, there is no past

No Day But Today
…………………………………Rent, Finale B., by Jonathan Larson
Bee asks us if we believe that the past, present, and future exist in the same sense.
Few notions of physics are as recalcitrant as time. The Newtonian notion of time as always and everywhere uniformly flowing may have temporarily (!) tamed time, but it didn’t domesticate it. Special relativity, which showed that time can’t be clearly separated from space, loosed some demons, and general relativity is worse. There was trouble from quantum mechanics too, which really prefers to treat time and space differently – unlike other observables, time doesn’t correspond to any Hermitian operator.

I don’t want to get into those very interesting issues, however, since there is a more elementary one that is even more difficult. No aspect of time is more fundamental to our ordinary understanding than its division into past, present, and future, but no aspect of our world is less captured by physics. T…